Germans do things in a big way. Twenty years ago the resistance to storage of nuclear fuel at the Gorleben facility started and for 18 of those years thru protests and legal actions they succeeded in preventing the arrival of any spent fuel shipments (tho some other waste was delivered). There have been two shipments since the German state finally broke through all the obstacles and the third one has just gone through - this is part of its story. The demonstrations have grown larger each year - this is a glimpse into the piece of it i saw.
What is interesting to me about the background is that many of the people who started the resistance movement against the Castor (which is the name of the fuel container) moved into the area and started working the land there. We are often talking about getting local people involved in various actions, this is a case where the actions went on for so long that the activists actually became the local people. This is a mostly agricultural area and the people who moved became farmers. But the local resistance is very deep, all thru the action old people from around the towns were seen supporting demonstrators in lots of ways, from cakes which arrived at midnight to rides for protesters on farm equipment between the 14 different camps which were organized along the routes of the transport. The kitchen told me that a significant amount of the food they prepared for the protesters was donated by the local farmers. But the support is actually much deeper, with farmers putting their tractors on the line in blockades, knowing that the police will likely smash them (as they have before).
We arrived the night before the transports did and the main camp was already several thousand. Rampenplan was cooking and asking only donations, they were loosing thousands no doubt, but were totally happy to be there, even with the stress. The sky regularly had helicopters in it, but the tactic from last year of flying very close to the ground and destroying tents had been abandoned. We walked over to the special crane which moves the Castors from the end of the train tracks to the trucks, from here they make the 18 km journey to the village of Gorleben.
Two things were amazing about the crane. The first was that we could get so close to it. We stood about 15 meters (about 50 feet) from it at the closest point. Last year some people climbed the fence and took a welder to the legs of the crane and managed to cut thru three of them before they were stopped, just short of collapsing the whole thing. Even with this history, there was only one low fence of 1 meter and then another high fence of about 4 meters, with simple three strands of barbed wire at the top. The crane itself stood well above the fence an easy target for someone coming from the trees or even with a good throwing arm and a rope from besides the tracks.
The second thing which surprised me was the relationship between the police guarding the crane and the protesters, it was extremely cordial. The police were making no effort to avoid conversation with the protesters, in fact they even initiated it on a couple of occasions i saw. Some protesters were allowed to sit on the first low fence with their feet over onto the police's side. I saw one protester offer an officer a paper tissue for his runny nose, he took it and they continued chatting. I wondered to myself if the police would be able to fully function the next day in beating the same people they had taken such kindness’ from the night before. And even if they did perform the mechanical work of beating up the protesters, certainly psychologically such contact makes the job expensive. Many protesters reported that the police guarding the transport opposed the transport, but felt they needed to do their job.
My favorite piece of propaganda from the action was a flier which was in the green color of the German police. It called on the police not to do the job of protecting the Castor transport and it gave a phone number for them to call. What was great about it is that it came from a groups of „critical police“, who were refusing to support the transport. When i talked with a few Germans about this they said that the civil service system in Germany was such that these police could not get fired for such insubordination, they would likely never get promoted again, but apparently they were driven by their beliefs to act in such a way - inspiring.
The Castors themselves are huge. Weighing a bit more than 500 metric tons, they fill a freight car of a train and are something like 20 meters long. They looks like a large pillars on their side made of stainless steel. Because of previous protests 6 were brought this time instead of one. As i watched it a man from the action group Robin Wood came by with a Geiger counter and informed me that the gamma radiation was 20 times background levels. So i stepped back from the fence, the thing was big enuf to see without being close.
When the second round of police were called up (over 30,000 total were called officially, up from 19,000 at the previous transport) women were included for the first time in the group, which met with serious protest both from police and some of the media. The principal issue is damage to reproductive systems. Police traveling with the Castors on the train are allowed to go 150 km and then they have their life time does and are not allowed to travel with them again. On the shifts for this transport they were allowed to walk beside them (at somewhat greater distance) for 4 hours and then permanently shifted away. The police labor even called for this shipment to be abandoned because of the danger to the forces. Our delaying tactics may ultimately succeed, because the Germans simply run out of police who can escort the transports (there are 420 more to go and they have only moved 8 so far in three shipments).
It is interesting to note that the principal reason for choosing the Gorleben site is that when it was selected 20 years ago it was considered ideal, because it was located in a „nose“ of west Germany surrounded to the north, east and south by east Germany, so in the event of an accident the communists would likely get the problem. Now of course it is located in the center of unified Germany just over 100 miles from Berlin. The best laid plans.
The past two shipments had gone from the crane thru the village of Dannenburg which is about one km from the crane. But the blockade this year made it impossible. About 20 tractors were parked in the road, which alone would have made it difficult, but huge holes were dug underneath the road, which were not a problem for normal traffic, would be potentially dangerous for the 500 plus ton Castor transports. The police had to take another route, which was several km longer, which means some more delay. The transports were 4 hours late in arriving at the crane because of demos which took place en route, including one where people put concrete on their hands and feet and connected themselves to the tracks. The police, unable to figure out how to remove the demonstrators without cutting their limbs, cut out a section of track and then spent a few hours replacing it.
We slept for two days on the section of road which lead from the tracks to the final storage in Gorleben. At midnight the second night there was the voice of the police on the loud speaker „Auctung, Auctung, this is the Police“ (in German of course). They told us that we were in violation of some relevant laws and they gave us three warnings (ultimately they would give many more warnings, something like 8 over the course of the eviction, many after it had started). They explained that they would start by using simply physical force of the police to remove us, then would escalate to water cannons and finally they would use clubs to remove us if necessary. In one of the relatively few agreements between all of the protesting groups - the first section of protesters after the crane (which was called X-000 „X thousand“, the entire event was called day „X 3“ for the third transport), it was agreed that this first part would be without violence and without property destruction - just thousands of people, Gandhi style blocking the transport with their bodies. In the end, it was at least 5,000 and i would estimate 10,000 people who were on the road for this first part of the action.
It was not the case that the entire action was non-violent. The German Autonom group is fairly famous for their hard tactics. At one point the day before the transport the police advanced on an Autonom position (a separate camp) and found first rocks coming at them, but they continued to advance, presumably with the intention of arresting. Then the Molotov cocktails came out and the police decided that the arrests were not so important. This little trick was not without troubles, one woman got hit by a Molotov and ended up in the hospital in critical condition. The boulevard press ran the headline „The first Casualty of Castor?“, perhaps - certainly not the last. The whole protest is often described as a kind of civil war.
At about 1:AM the police started to move, just using the promised physical force. It was the same kind of scene which most of us have seen at demos, police pulling people apart, various hand grips, police putting fingers in peoples noses and turning, some punches in the face - but it was not excessively violent. As often is the case, it very much depended on the attitude of the police person who got to you. Many were sympathetic with the protesters and made some effort not to use too much pain. Others were exhausted and frustrated. Still others were clearly into hurting people. As Crystal once said, „Every cop has his/her own agenda“
The difference for me was the sheer size. Even with the relatively efficient removal, because of the tremendous number of people on the road, they could not move very fast. There is a bit of a race against the clock. The Castor can not move on the road at night, for legal and logistical reasons. It takes about 8 hours to go the 18 km from the Crane to the storage (at least it did with X2 - the second transport), a bit longer because we forced it to take an alternative route. So daylight is the key. All through the night there were occasional announcements of other actions going on, members of the German Parliament, on site, spoke to the protesters telling them that they were doing the right thing. Announcements of more tunnels beneath the roads brought cheers and there was even a brief musical performance, but people were so exhausted that this was cut short. The evictions started at 1AM, with the likely intent of clearing the path by daybreak, but it was clear by about 3:30 AM that simply physical violence was going be too slow. So the water cannons started.
I did not think they would use the water cannons at night, because even with the helicopters flying overhead which huge lights it was quite difficult to see and if you hit someone directly in the face with a water cannon you can really hurt them (Tom tells a story of a Belgian woman going deaf). Water cannons are also a variable strength weapon, at X2 they used them both at high pressure and with tear gas, but the bad press coverage of this tactic was sufficient to start the cannon with low pressure and no tear gas. Still low pressure is enuf to knock you down if you are standing. The police actually took a fair amount of beating by the cannons themselves, they had to be in front of the cannons to move us and were often soaked and hit - which could not have made them very happy. The cannons themselves have an odd comic appearance to them. Long nozzles between two large lights all mounted on a large joystick controlled form inside the cab of the vehicle makes them look like cartoon characters a bit, with huge eyes, long noses and bobbing heads. There comic value disappears when you hear people getting hit.
But even with the water cannons (which did slowly but steadily increase in pressure as the night wore on) it was not possible for the police to use tear gas, because of the high level of press attention and the bad press they got last time for using it. Similarly, they probably selected not to start clubbing people for the same reasons. So as it was a full 4 hours of daylight passed before the demonstrators were removed (excluding the Freiburg folx who climbed the trees and set up cat walks which the police were totally unprepared for and end up running the Castors under them). Then because of the huge number of police and vehicles involved, it took them another couple of hours to reorganize themselves before the transport could start moving.
We were some of the last people to be removed. They finally had started the eviction process coming from both directions to try to speed things up. A huge plastic sheet was put overhead of perhaps 1000 people (at one point the press donated 50 meters of plastic to protect the protesters). And the group regularly broke into choruses of „We all live in a Yellow Submarine“, which the internationals in my affinity group found hilarious. Our group consisted of people from the FAIRE and PIANO projects and friends and we had decided to use „Siemens“ as our identifying password. The need for the password was that people often went away from the group and when they came back had trouble finding us in the sea of protesters. So they would call out „Siemens“ and listen for the reply „Boycott“ and then go to the place. Other groups picked up this technique and the group beside us was „Elvis“ to which they responded „Lives!“ („Leben“ in German).
We were only able to hold our position for a couple of minutes. Krista Piano got punched several times in the face, Tom from Gent got his arm twisted again (he had been up front earlier and been thrown out of the line the night before). Nadia Piano’s nose was twisted and got cut. Sarah Piano got fingers up her nose. Ogy Faire and i simply had our wrists held back long enuf to convince us to cooperate. Then we were the last we were temporarily blocked from getting with the larger group because the police finally controlled the first part of the road and formed a line separation us from the mass of the group. Steph Wild got thrown around by the police as she tried to cut thru their lines to return to the other side. Ultimately they let us reconnect.
I don’t really know how many people were there, no one can guess very accurately, many people intentionally stayed out of sight. There were entire camps which i did not see (and the media paid no attention to). There were camps of motorcycle folx, a women and lesbian camp (i would have called it lesbians and other women, but you don’t mess with this name stuff), there was the Hamburg camp, which was harder action folx, there were wild cat action camps, people staying with friends in the towns along the way and almost all of these did not make it to the main action at the beginning where there were probably 10,000 people (including perhaps a couple thousand non-activist visitors). The numbers don’t really matter - the spirit was incredible, the cost both political and financial was huge and the message was clear, it is not just about trains and geological sites - it is about people being upset and active on the issue, which is not going away.
I could not stay to the very end, so Krista Piano and i did some quick talking and walking on the way to her next stop to try to catch the Castor on route. We went thru the village of Dannenburg and caught what for me was the most telling incident of the entire action. About 40 police in full gear came and started puncturing the tires of the tractors which were in the blockade. This road could not be used because of the underground tunnels in it, so this was a measure probably designed as revenge by the police against the local people (Tom theorized that the tractors might be moved to block the other road, but this seems unlikely in retrospect, because of the distance and speed of the Castors at that point). The local people physically stopped the police from damaging some tractors and drove some others away. But the anger of the local people was intense. They did not outnumber the police by more than a dozen and had no weapons - but the police knew they were totally in the wrong and started to retreat. The local people started to advance and there was this surrealistic scene of angry unarmed locals advancing against totally geared up police with shields, clubs, guns and the whole bit. Soon the police were running from the locals. They ran into a near by field where 5 or 6 helicopters descended and picked them up as the locals chased after them. As the helicopters flew off, i was reminded of the final scene of the Vietnam war, with US marines fleeing the embassy in Saigon holding on to helicopters - uninvited violent intruders running from their failures.
- Paxus reporting from the German Nuclear War front